The climax of Zero Dark Thirty is an above-average action sequence which manages to be suspenseful even though we all know how it ends. Through the greenish hues of night-vision goggles, we watch highly skilled Navy SEALS execute a surgical strike on Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad, Pakistan compound, killing the man behind the 9/11 Attacks.
But the events prior to the departure of the first helicopter to Abbottabad are what are really interesting about Zero Dark Thirty: a nine-year, not-so-surgical manhunt. The CIA operatives on the case, Dan (Jason Clarke) and Maya (Jessica Chastain), exhibit steely determination as they try to persuade skeptical bureaucrats to act on incomplete information that came from ethically-challenged sources. Some of their leads result in dead ends for their colleagues – in the tragic and literal sense of the word dead.
And sometimes they use torture.
Director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t sugar coat. Most of the movie’s first hour consists of gruesome scenes of prisoners being subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques,” including waterboarding. One CIA operative even manages a smirk when she sees Barack Obama on TV, sermonizing about how these techniques diminish the moral stature of the United States. (Incidentally, that’s Obama’s only appearance in the movie. Zero Dark Thirty is definitely the story of the spies and the soldiers who did the heavy lifting in finding and killing bin Laden, not the politicians.) Regardless of their effect on our moral stature, the techniques work. A prisoner cracks and gives Dan and Maya the name of the al-Qaeda courier who eventually leads them to bin Laden.
Of course, the question with any work of historical fiction is: is that how it really happened? According to then-CIA Director Leon Panetta, yes. In an interview three days after bin Laden’s death, he said, “enhanced interrogation techniques were used to extract information that led to the mission's success.” But Panetta’s successor, Acting Director Michael Morell, presented a more nuanced picture. In a letter to CIA employees about Zero Dark Thirty he wrote, “[T]he truth is that multiple streams of intelligence led CIA analysts to conclude that Bin Ladin was hiding in Abbottabad. Some came from detainees subjected to enhanced techniques, but there were many other sources as well. And, importantly, whether enhanced interrogation techniques were the only timely and effective way to obtain information from those detainees, as the film suggests, is a matter of debate that cannot and never will be definitively resolved.”
So we have conflicting reports and I leave it as an exercise for my readers to decide for themselves: was torture justified in bringing to justice the man responsible for 3,000 murders on that sad and terrible September day?